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The Matter of the Page

Essays in Search of Ancient and Medieval Authors

Shane Butler

Publication Year: 2011

Ancient and medieval literary texts often call attention to their existence as physical objects. Shane Butler helps us to understand why. Arguing that writing has always been as much a material struggle as an intellectual one, The Matter of the Page offers timely lessons for the digital age about how creativity works and why literature moves us.
    Butler begins with some considerations about the materiality of the literary text, both as a process (the draft) and a product (the book), and he traces the curious history of “the page” from scroll to manuscript codex to printed book and beyond. He then offers a series of unforgettable portraits of authors at work: Thucydides struggling to describe his own diseased body; Vergil ready to burn an epic poem he could not finish; Lucretius wrestling with words even as he fights the madness that will drive him to suicide; Cicero mesmerized by the thought of erasing his entire career; Seneca plumbing the depths of the soul in the wax of his tablets; and Dhuoda, who sees the book she writes as a door, a tunnel, a womb. Butler reveals how the work of writing transformed each of these authors into his or her own first reader, and he explains what this metamorphosis teaches us about how we too should read.
    All Greek and Latin quotations are translated into English and technical matters are carefully explained for general readers, with scholarly details in the notes.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-x

Versions or portions of this book’s individual chapters have been heard by the following audiences, who are thanked collectively for their corrections and suggestions: Seminar on the History of Material Texts, University of Pennsylvania (introduction, chapters 1 and 6); Classics Colloquium, Bryn Mawr College (chapter 3); Department of Classics, UCLA (chapter 3); Classics Colloquium, ...

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Introduction: Presenting the Author

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pp. 3-12

More than four decades have now passed since Roland Barthes announced “The Death of the Author.”1 Others had anticipated this obituary, and many have repeated it, although precise emphases have varied: authorial intent is unrecoverable or irrelevant; meaning is constituted by readers, or by communities thereof; the literary text is an instantiation of the social text; any of a number of ...

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The Backward Glance

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pp. 13-27

Of all the turning points in the history of poetry, the most important lies just below the surface of the earth, almost at the end of the steep climb up from Hell. This is the spot where Orpheus ignored the terms imposed upon him and looked over his shoulder at the wife he had just won back from death ...

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Myself Sick

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pp. 28-36

Let us imagine a Byzantine grammarian blessed with a fine classical library, one lined with many works we know, but with just as many now lost to us. From these he draws the citations that fill his learned treatises on ancient language and style. In the course of one such study, he offers a discussion of the ...

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Latin Decomposition

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pp. 37-62

There is much here that could be said to be scandalous: sex, drugs, madness, suicide. And yet it is a seemingly drab bibliographical note—quos postea Cicero emendavit—which has caused Lucretian scholars the most unease. Karl Lachmann avoids the nightmarish possibility of philosophical tinkering with the ...

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The Erasable Cicero

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pp. 63-74

The summer of 59 BC found Cicero in his forty-eighth year and Rome in a state of high anxiety. This was the first summer of the so-called First Triumvirate, and Roman wits had begun to date their documents “in the year in which Julius and Caesar were consuls.”1 Cicero’s letters for that year to his dear ...

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The Surface of the Page

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pp. 75-86

Is the page flat? Our first impulse is to say yes, else it would not be a page. But to peer closely, even at the finest paper, parchment, or papyrus, is to find the strands and pores and fibers that give every page both the texture and the depth into which the ink must sink without penetrating. And the fact that the page is ...

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The Folded Page

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pp. 87-105

In a famous medieval illuminated manuscript known as the Codex Aureus of St. Emmeram, the beginning of the Gospel of John is illustrated, on the facing page, with the somewhat uncanny image of the hand of God.1 Again and again one can close the book and then reopen it, lifting the hand from the elaborately ...


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pp. 107-135


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pp. 137-145


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pp. 147-152

Index Locorum

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pp. 153-158

E-ISBN-13: 9780299248239
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299248246

Publication Year: 2011